January 18, 2009 / 22 Tevet 5769
“I feel that things are starting to return to normal, even though the schools have still not opened in Ashkelon...Fewer rockets are falling, but sometimes we find ourselves imagining we heard a siren and running for the shelters. There is an optimistic feeling that this war may be close to ending.”
Several days before the early morning ceasefire of January 18th began to take hold, Ravit Ohayon-Michal, Director of the Jewish Agency's Israel Department activities in Sderot, Eshkol and Sha'ar Hanegev, reflected on a moment of hope and optimism from her home in Ashkelon.
And as southern communities begin to adjust to a new dawn of calm, the Jewish Agency, thanks to the unwavering support of UJC / Federations of North America, is already actively engaged in offering real-time solutions to match the increasing optimism. As part of our 'First Steps Toward Recovery', we are focusing our efforts in four targeted areas of activity – each of which utilizes our experience and success in rebuilding communities and lives in the aftermath of war.
Children from the south enjoying a concert in Jerusalem during a day-long respite
During the war, we were there. Bringing children away from danger and toward safety and enjoyment. Our respite activities provided more than 23,000 children and youth from 7 communities closest to Israel’s southern border with a day of enrichment and recreation, ranging from trips to zoos, museums and amusement parks, to concerts and outdoor events. During our immediate response, these children were our first priority. Now, thanks to the support of the UJC, we are aiming to offer respite activities for children and youth living yet further from the border who also have suffered the stresses of missile attacks. “I am glad that Jews around the world are thinking about our children," said Rivka Boim, during a recent respite day to the Ramat Gan Wildlife Safari with her children. “And that they haven't forgotten us.”
Our comprehensive response to help children and youth recover from the war includes utilizing active staff and volunteers who already work with children and youth in the region. Adi is a Trustee in our transformative Youth Futures program for youth at risk in Beer Sheva. During the war, Adi and her peers quickly mobilized to provide increased attention and assistance to their participants – whatever it would take to help. In her own words, Adi writes, “Our new responsibilities include speaking to them daily over the phone, trying to calm them down and supporting both the children and their families in every possible way by giving them a great deal of understanding, empathy and warmth.”
Working with our professionals and volunteers, we will implement a comprehensive array of extended recreational and enrichment programs for children and youth in communities across the south. This includes after-school activities such as art, drama, sports, and computers that incorporate elements of post-trauma rehabilitation to be operated by the dozens of Youth Futures Trustees like Adi in cooperation with professional psychologists and social workers.
Similarly, we're using infrastructure already in place, such as mobilizing motivated volunteers living in Jewish Agency supported Young Communities, working toward closing social and educational gaps among children in their respctive communities. Already in Be’er Sheva's Dalet neighborhood, the Old City of Beer Sheva, in “Yachini”, a Young Community near Be’er Sheva, 100 residents are making an indelible difference. They have a proven track record for action and impact, and we will build on what's already making a positive difference for thousands within a framework customized to meet the needs of these communities after the war.
New immigrant children at a Jewish Agency Absorption Center learning
to cope with their fears during a drama therapy session.
Our staff has also made great strides in addressing the particular needs of new immigrants living at Jewish Agency Absorption Centers across the south. From training professionals to operating alternative therapy programs, we have offered creative and successful programs during the past few weeks of war. For children like Marag, 11, who lives at the Kalisher Absorption Center, his participation in drama therapy sessions granted him invaluable skills to cope with the fear and stress he experienced during the warning sirens. With additional support, we will expand our special recreational programming to include more than 500 youngsters living in 10 southern absorption centers, offering them critical communication and coping skills to help them move past the trauma of the war and toward a successful life in Israel.
For all individuals and communities across southern Israel awaiting a new dawn of optimism and peace, the Jewish Agency is there, working toward recovery and beyond. As the crises of “during the war” becomes those we face now “after the war”, we are the strength and hope for a better tomorrow.